IGF 2020 Main Session NRIs: Role of the Internet in Emergency Situations

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Author:
Pedro Vilela

Emergency situations, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, have demonstrated that the Internet plays a ‎central role in society amidst tough economic and social restrictions (e.g. remote work and study, personal ‎communications, service delivery etc.). The moderator, Mr Flavio Wagner (Representative of the Brazil IGF) invited the panellists to discuss if and how the Internet has made their communities more resilient during the pandemic.

In Colombia, there was great concern in regard to the competitiveness of companies.The Colombian government has sought to enforce public policies regarding the pandemic and to facilitate different technological tools that allow companies to be more competitive and to consolidate themselves during the crisis. An important example of these policies is the legal instruments related to the digital transformation and cybersecurity. According to Ms Isabel Cristina de Avila Benitez (Representative of the Colombia IGF), the Internet is one of the most important tools in Colombia’s strategy to overcome the COVID-19 crisis.

According to Mr Qusal Al-Shatti (Representative of the Arab IGF), the Internet has proved to be the main tool for the government to send important information to citizens, particularly as people were confined to their geographic locations and were unable to move freely for business or leisure. The Internet helped to ease the impact of these limitations by guaranteeing certain essential needs whether in logistics, social interactions, or running a business.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated a ‎number of digital policy issues. According to Ms Tanara Lauschner (Representative of the Brazil IGF), increased Internet traffic forced government authorities to convene several different stakeholders, including big telecommunication providers and related task forces, to design and apply measures to tackle new challenges posed to national infrastructure.

Panama has made significant progress in the utilisation of the Internet and in its attempts to close the digital divide. Due to the pandemic, people have been working from home, even though not the entire population has the equipment or Internet service required to do so. According to Ms Jennifer Lopez (Representative of the Panama IGF), the pandemic has exacerbated the need to deploy measures to protect citizen's privacy and ensure adequate cybersecurity.

During the third block of the session, speakers discussed best practices for combating emergency situations ‎using data-based technologies, as well as emerging technologies that are being adopted worldwide. Ms Emanuela Girardi (Representative of the Italy IGF), described an Italian community of AI researchers and scientists who have joined together and developed several concrete proposals to government, health institutions, and doctors related to the health emergency, which include those related to bioinformatics, image analysis, and the ‘infodemic’.

In the Dominican Republic, an interdisciplinary team was assembled to research the experience of elderly people after social distancing was imposed. The objective was to find out whether elderly people maintained an active life despite the pandemic, as well as the level of ICT use in establishing relationships, maintaining learning activities, and addressing individuals’ emotional state. According to Mr Osvaldo Larancuent (Representative of the Dominican Republic IGF), the research showed that most individuals have remained active in their households and that they use ICT to communicate with family and friends.

Many developing economies in the Asia-Pacific region have pursued innovation during the pandemic. Ms Jennifer Chung (Representative of the Asia-Pacific IGF) mentions Taiwan as an example of an economy that was very successful in mitigating COVID-related risks. Many people cited trust in their government and the very effective rollout of different measures such as contact tracing that involved strong privacy features.

Mr Dustin Loup (Representative of the USA IGF) reported that in the USA, healthcare providers, businesses, and schools saw a massive increase in remote encounters between February and April. Both the providers and recipients of virtual services needed to have access to the Internet, devices, and know-how in order to utilise them.

In Argentina, a project involved creating a system for small producers of food – which included several online workshops using different social networks and other connectivity tools – that allowed them to sell their produce and ensure sustainability during the crisis, according to Ms Olga Cavalli (Representative of the Argentina IGF).

The discussion then moved to the question: ‘How to secure the deployment of online tools and services for combating ‎emergency situations?’ In Bolivia, the government published all of its services online, and also maintained a contact centre which combined IP telephony and which was made available for public servants, effectively enabling them to work from their homes, reported Mr Roberto Zambrana (Representative of the Bolivia IGF).

In Spain, the availability of high-speed Internet has been key in emergency situations, allowing the continuity of activities via remote working and the provision of public services such as education, so it has been crucial to put in place measures to answer the deployment of good Internet network. The regulatory framework has made it possible for several telecom operators to invest in the national network and produce wideband Internet access, stated Mr Felix Hernandez-Gil (Representative of the Spain IGF).

The subject then moved to the issue of how to tailor policies and actions to support the most vulnerable during the pandemic. Mrs Zeina Bou Harb (Representative of the Lebanon IGF) raised the issue of protection of children online. She stressed that we should not underestimate the risks that children might face when using technology. During the pandemic, in which young people are connected online for longer times and where the Internet is providing vast opportunities for them to learn, communicate, socialise, and share their views, she believes that there are also significantly more challenges to their safety.

One of the main issues of the pandemic are the adverse economic effects to individuals, families, and communities. The lockdowns make it impossible to continue working or do regular ‎activities for many and particularly for the self-employed. ‎Strong policy initiatives must be adopted by actors worldwide to take ‎advantage of Internet services and to support economies. Mr Nick Wenban-Smith (Representative of the UK IGF) described how British Internet infrastructure has come under significant pressure and scrutiny, but has proved to be highly resilient and absolutely crucial for the state’s economic survival.

As described by Mr Makane Faye (Representative of the Africa IGF), in Senegal, the overall objective is to harness technology and innovation to transform African societies and communities to promote the continent’s integration, to generate inclusive growth, to stimulate job creation, and to close the digital divide by building a secure digital market in Africa by 2030. To do this, it is important to invest in digital skills and capacity building across educational centres and to offer online skill development programs to provide basic knowledge regarding security and privacy in a digital environment.

Ms Meri Baghdasaryan and Mr Marcel Krummenauer (Representatives of EuroDIG) described EuroDIG’s efforts in adjusting its discussions to the context of the pandemic and its impact on the European digital economy. They discussed a multistakeholder panel that reflected on the different aspects of the pandemic's impact on the digital economy, including security, economic human rights, and innovation. The conference has also discussed the need to think about the sustainable society that we want to create and what role digital technology will play in that society.